Reversing Autoimmune Disorders by Treating the Root Cause
Dr. Kevin Ritzenthaler, DC, DCBCN
Autoimmune diseases are reaching epidemic levels, in part, because there are so many of them. Current medicine lists between 80 and 100 different types of autoimmune disorders or diseases. Some of the more common ones include Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), Hashimoto’s Disease, Grave’s Disease, and Lupus.
Once diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, many believe their only option is to manage the symptoms while waiting for modern medicine to find a cure for the disorder. I’m here to tell you that is not the case.
A functional medicine approach to autoimmune disorders has the possibility of reversing the disease process by enabling your body to heal itself.
Skeptical? I don’t blame you. If this were true, why wouldn’t your doctor have talked to you about this? Fundamentally, conventional medicine and functional medicine take a very different approach to chronic disease.
Shift from Traditional to Functional Medicine Mindset
When it comes to autoimmune disorders, traditional medicine tends to focus on stopping attacks and managing symptoms. This may be accomplished by using pharmaceutical drugs to depress the immune system, reduce inflammation, or alleviate other symptoms. This is necessary and can provide much needed relief to patients. When other approaches fail, it may be the only recourse that remains.
However, these treatments are occurring after the fact. They focus on stopping attacks in progress and relieving the symptoms of the attack. While this can help patients, if you want restore true health, then you need to figure out WHY the immune system went from functioning normally to attacking your body. This did not occur in a vacuum.
Something happened to cause your body to go into this abnormal state of hyperimmunity. That is the focus of functional medicine. The functional medicine approach is not as concerned with the symptoms of a particular disease as much as it is with the underlying cause of the disease.
When the body functions properly, symptoms diminish, and illness is no longer present.
Functional medicine and traditional medicine might seem to be at odds with one another. But the reality is, they do not need to be.
Spectrum of Autoimmune Disorders
An autoimmune disorder, by definition, is when your immune system mistakes healthy cells as a threat and responds by attacking them. While traditional medicine may treat different autoimmune disorders as separate and distinct, the functional medicine approach views them on a continuum.
There are many, many disorders caused by autoimmunity. Some of the most prevalent include the following:
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)– the immune system attacks the protective covering of nerves (myelin). This creates scar tissue on the nerves and interrupts messages sent along the nerves to the brain and spinal cord.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) – the immune system attacks the joints. The lining of the joints are impacted resulting in painful swelling and joint deformity. It can also lead to damage in other parts of the body, including the skin, lungs, eyes, heart and blood vessels.
- Hashimoto’s disease – the immune system attacks the thyroid, leading to an underactive thyroid (known as hypothyroidism) and interrupting hormone production.
- Grave’s disease – the immune system attacks the thyroid, leading to an overactive thyroid (known as hyperthyroidism). This also affects hormone production.
- Lupus -the immune system attacks tissues and organs. Lupus can affect the skin, kidneys, joints, blood cells, brain, lungs, and heart.
These are all conditions where the immune system is attacking otherwise healthy cells. A functional medicine practitioner isn’t as concerned with what’s being attacked as much as why the attack is occurring.
Underlying Causes of Autoimmune Disorders
The science of functional medicine has uncovered a handful of common reasons that may cause the body to go into a hyperimmune state.
Food Sensitivities and Leaky Gut
If you read my articles, you’ll recognize that that food sensitivities and GI tract health are a common theme. Why is that? It’s because 80% of your immune system lives in your gut. Digest that for a moment (yes, pun intended).
That sheds new light on the phrase “you are what you eat”.
There is a myriad of reasons why you may develop sensitivities to particular foods, and it can be difficult to know which foods cause problems for you. (To better understand this, read my article, “What’s Really Causing Your GI Issues – Food Sensitivites, a Common and Misunderstood Culprit”). When your body is constantly reacting to a food to which you have a sensitivity, you are damaging your GI tract.
A properly functioning GI tract, or gut, must be somewhat permeable in order to absorb the nutrients from our food. However, when the gut is exposed to certain foods, infections, toxins, and stress, it can become “leaky” allowing toxins, microorganisms (including bacteria), and undigested foods to leak into your blood stream. It can also prevent the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals. This can cause inflammation within the body which, in turn, can result in autoimmune disease.
Chronic Viral Infections
Throughout your life, you’ve been exposed to a variety of viral infections including, the flu, chickenpox, HPV (human papillomavirus), and mononucleosis, to name a few. Once contracted, they can stay with you for the rest of your life, going in and out of dormant states. Chickenpox is a classic example. We get chickenpox, deal with the symptoms, and then it will go dormant and can live within our nerves for decades. As we age, and our immune system’s ability to protect our body decreases, the chickenpox virus can resurface as shingles.
Scientists have long suspected that viruses may be linked to the development of autoimmune disorders. Some people are simply better able to tolerate the low-level viruses than others. If you’re a person who is not able to tolerate the viruses, or if your immune system is otherwise compromised, it can trigger the hyperimmune state that leads to autoimmune dysfunction.
Toxicity is another common problem in today’s world. Whether we realize it or not, toxicity levels in our environment and within our bodies are on the rise. We are exposed to toxins in the air we breathe, water we drink, and on the foods that we eat. Additionally, many of the products in our home are made from chemicals whose health impact has not been fully tested and may be negatively impacting our health.
In some instances, toxic exposure can damage or alter your body on the cellular level. These changes can make it such that your body mistakes these cells as foreign tissue and goes on the attack. In other cases, the effect is less direct, causing chronic inflammation which, in turn, leads to hyperimmunity.
Your body is a complex machine. When it does not have the proper amount of key nutrients as fuel, it cannot function properly. Unfortunately, the average American diet is woefully low in nutritive foods, contributing to many of the chronic conditions we see today.
I could list many vitamins and nutrients that play a role in immune dysfunction, including vitamins A, D, and K as well as Omega 3s, Iron, Zinc, Magnesium, and Selenium. But before you head to the supplement aisle, it’s important to know what’s happening in your body. A functional medicine practitioner will test to see which nutrients are below the optimal level in your body and then recommend ways to increase them, both naturally and through supplementation.
There’s another factor to consider here, and that’s the difference between “normal” and “optimal” levels of any nutrient. Let’s use vitamin D as an example. When testing a population for vitamin D levels, the results of thousands of individuals are charted. Researchers will use that data to determine the “normal” level of vitamin D across the population. These results indicate that vitamin D concentrations in the low 30’s would be “normal”. However, research shows that the “optimal” level of vitamin D is actually between 50-75. This can lead to many patients believing that their “normal” levels of vitamin D are sufficient, when in fact, they are not.
Treating Autoimmune Disorders
As I stated earlier, the functional medicine treatment approach to autoimmune disease doesn’t look at the disease itself. The goal is to fix the function of the immune system. There’s a reason why the immune system is not functioning properly – our goal is to uncover and correct those reasons. Sometimes you can identify and correct them, other times you cannot. But there’s always an underlying reason for the dysfunction.
The approach we take will differ for each patient, but the first step is always to take a detailed health history. What we learn about that individual patient’s history will point us in the direction of detailed testing necessary to uncover the root of the problem.
After testing is complete, we move on to working to correct the problems that we have found. This is a multi-faceted approach that includes dietary adjustments, lifestyle changes, and nutraceutical supplementation.
You might be asking yourself, “Why didn’t my doctor tell me any of this?” And that brings us back to the shift in focus from symptoms to causes.
In today’s world, medicine is focused on symptom relief. Upon diagnosis, the doctor-patient conversation usually focuses on “living with” or managing the symptoms of the condition. It’s a foregone conclusion that you have the disorder and your only option is to figure out how to live with it.
Pharmaceutical companies exist because of a desire to relieve symptoms. There are brilliant minds working very hard to improve muscle function, for example, in MS patients. Great strides have been made on the symptomatic front, and patients have benefited from these discoveries.
But managing the symptoms of a disease is not the same as getting better.
Equally great strides are being made on the functional medicine front in uncovering the root causes of autoimmune disorders and understanding how to reverse them. In fact, it’s been said that we’ve learned more about the gut in the past 5 years than was known in the previous 50 years.
And that’s the key to true health–a better understanding of bodily function combined with newer, more advanced tools to uncover biochemical imbalances that lead to dysfunction.
Functional medicine has been called the future of medicine. But, that future is here now in the offices of functional medicine practitioners across the country. To learn if Functional Medicine could help you, call 715-355-4224 to schedule a no-charge consultation at Innovative Health in Weston.
Dr. Kevin Ritzenthaler, DC, DCBCN is the owner of Innovative Health in Weston, Wisconsin. In addition to being a chiropractor, he has a diplomate in Clinical Nutrition and specializes in functional medicine. A no-cost consultation at Innovative Health can be scheduled by calling 715-355-4224.